Why you should care

Because the road to bettering education is more complicated than you think.

Midmorning on a weekday, Reshma Begum is walking her daughter back from school. Begum spends her days selling cheap jewelry at local markets, and her husband works construction, but she has different plans for her 7-year-old daughter, Salia. “We are poor, but we will try hard for her future,” she says. “Whether my children become maharajas or fakirs” — kings or ascetic beggars — “they should learn.”

On paper, Salia has a pretty good chance. She comes from a Muslim family in West Bengal, the northeastern Indian state that borders Bangladesh. Here in the Rajarhat district, in one of the largest “villages” in the state — home to some 5,000, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim — the girls might make Malala proud.

They are taking advantage of government incentives to attend school, often biking 45 minutes on government-provided cycles to the nearest classroom. They’re also advancing through primary school and further; enrollment rates stand as high as 96 percent in some districts, says Biswajit Ghosh, professor of sociology at the University of Burdwan, who has run field studies for UNICEF in the region. They even perform better than their male counterparts, according to a report released by Indian economist Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute earlier this year.

The better educated a woman is, the less her dowry costs. It’s another pretty attribute, like fair skin or the ability to cook a nice lamb curry.

It’s cause for minor celebration. But it’s also a look into the complex efforts required to school girls, especially Muslim girls, nationwide. It’s easy to get cheers for anything related to improving young women’s education, anything that helps stave off early weddings — a 2014 UNICEF report found India had the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. And West Bengal’s relatively progressive government, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the state’s first-ever female chief minister, has pushed policies to keep girls in school longer. The Kanyashree program, for instance, deposits scholarship money directly into girls’ bank accounts to fund their schooling.

Not so fast, though. Reshma Khatul, a bright-eyed 15-year-old, liked school at first. Her parents send her to a girls’ school that meets about a half-hour away by cycle at seven a.m. In the afternoons it clears out so the coed school day can begin. Reshma was so afraid of making the journey to class on her first day that her younger brother walked her there. Today, though, she’s skipping school. She’s bored. And like some of her older friends, she might make use of her impending scholarship money in a different way: to fund a dowry.

It’s not an unusual move around here. Rabeya Khatul, a 20-year-old who’s studying honors political science at a local college and was married about six months ago, guesses 70 percent of her friends were married by age 17 or 18. Most took the Kanyashree money to pay for their wedding ornaments or to buy their grooms motorbikes as part of the dowry, which can range from 30,000 rupees to one lakh. (That’s $450 to $1,500 in a state where 80 percent of Muslims live on monthly family salaries of around $75 — or less, according to Sen’s report.) “There is no occasion to use this education,” Reshma says. “I’ve never seen anyone use their education.”

Except in one capacity: to increase their value as a bride. The better educated a woman is, Reshma says, the less her dowry costs. It’s another pretty attribute, like fair skin or the ability to cook a nice lamb curry. So what gives? For one, the boys, says Burdwan’s Ghosh. West Bengal, where communists ruled for 34 years, chasing out industrial productivity, has few job opportunities — particularly in districts like Malda, where Muslims congregate. This despite the fact that many Muslims are refugees from Bangladesh, occasionally illegally crossing the border in hopes of work.

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In West Bengal, young girls peer out of their school and onto the street.

Source Sanjena Sathian / OZY

But boys see their fathers setting off to work construction in cities like Mumbai, bringing in money; often they drop out by sixth grade to join in, Ghosh says. Families are eager to marry off their working sons, and mothers, who in this region are particularly afraid of “love marriages,” worrying that their daughters may abscond with a Hindu boy, push their daughters into weddings, Ghosh says. “One cannot settle the issue of Muslim girls unless and until the boys start attending schools too,” he says. Supriya Roy, founder of the NGO Towards Future, which works on education locally, says Muslim parents are now eager to send their daughters to school but still try to shield them from anything outside the home that might build on schooling. Roy organized a soccer game for the girls — afterward, parents grumbled and kept their daughters inside even more.

It’s not as though life after primary school is entirely neglected or abysmal, though. Banerjee’s government has provided grants for universities, as well as allowed hostels (dorms) specifically for Muslim girls to be built. Sen’s study shows that while nearly half of adult Muslims are illiterate, 70 percent of the overall Islamic population can read — demonstrating an overall bump in literacy rates.

For 13-year-old Bilkesh Khatul, though, there are good reasons to keep studying. She grew up seeing her illiterate mother struggle with basic tasks, like visiting the doctor. Her mom wants Bilkesh “to be introduced as a literate woman,” she says. Bilkesh’s sister married at 18, despite their mother’s protestations. “As for me,” Bilkesh says, “I will try my best to resist that marriage.”

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